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Culture and Education

Messages Conveyed by Place Names

Hiroyuki Sasahara
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Tragic disasters are occurring one after another. Landslides, such as the one in Asaminami-ku, Hiroshima, take many precious lives. After that, a TV program reported that Jourakuji (上楽寺) in the Yagi (八木) area was originally called Jarakuji (蛇落地, or, a place where snakes fall), and Ashiya (芦谷) was Ashidani (悪谷, or, a bad valley). This report triggered an argument about whether the landslide was a man-made or natural disaster. People searched the Internet for folklore or literature from which those traditions were derived, but seemingly failed to find clear sources. Some consider, however, that yagi is also a place name signifying land collapse. This reminds me of a bluff called Yagigahana (八木ヶ鼻) in Sanjo, Niigata prefecture, which Dr. Tetsuji Morohashi believed to be a scene in Journey to the West when he was a child.

Today, it is often said that place names indicate dangerous places to live. In fact, there is a group of place names expressing land collapse in toponymy. Mama, hake, hoki, byaku, and hetsuri as well as gake fall in this category. They are old words signifying a cliff that remained as dialect and then were fossilized in place names.

They are written with the kanji character (Chinese character) of 崖 as well as other kanji with a similar meaning or character form, such as 峨家, or, 真間 in the Japanese ancient writing system called Man’yōgana, and in the coinages of 垳, 壗, 墹, 圸, 𡋽, 岾, 𡵅, 山 on 辟 (or 山 on 碎) and 岪 (Hiroyuki Sasahara, Kanji in Japan [Nihon no Kanji], and same author, Phase and Development of Japanese Characters [Kokuji no Isō to Tenkai]). While some of them are not even in any dictionaries, all of them reflect people’s awareness about the land around the Edo era. Even if I find one in a list of koaza (small village names) and visit there, I often observe that the name has already become obsolete, and that no one but the elders knows which place the name indicates. For example, a large golf course was built over a small area once called Byaku.

On the other hand, in some cases where a normal kanji such as 儘 is used, the place name is not related to previous natural disasters, though its pronunciation may sound like a name signifying land collapse. This is because the name of a very small area is currently used for a broader area or several place names with different origins or sources incidentally have the same pronunciation.

For example, if you raised a caution or made a snap judgment that all place names containing momo—which has the same consonants as mama—express geographical collapse, it would sound plausible in that it is different from a funny theory of etymology as told in a comic story. However, it may cause misunderstanding instead of a caution, like a theory linking every word origin to Ainu. Some place names were, of course, derived from a plant of momo or peach. We need not only to refer to literature but also to look back into long history of the place. In so doing, we should also take regional difference into consideration, including a fact that mama, in the sense of a cliff, is little found in western Japan.

Because many place names in Japan had existed as spoken words before they were written in kanji, exploration of their origins based on the meaning of their kanji characters may cause misunderstanding. The origin of Hasama (飯山満) located in a valley in Chiba, which is also used in the name of a railway station, is explained as a mountain that was filled with rice, probably due to its kanji notation.

As a kanji specialist, I dare say that when attempting to determine the ancient origin of a place name, sticking to its kanji notation may fail to comprehend its original meaning. Nevertheless, there have already been many place names for which any effort in exploration would not reach their old word form or meaning. On the other hand, the notation of some place names shown in historical documents may reflect the awareness of the people at the time when they chose those kanji characters.

The Kouda Library of Akitakata city sent me invaluable documents that are not found in any other regions. The first character of Sukumoji (糘地), the name of a small area in the region, is a kanji dialect unique to this place. In the Edo era, the headman of this village named the place Sukumoji because it yielded the least amount of rice, as if people had harvested sukumo, or chaff. He used the character 糘, a form combining the kanji characters of rice (米) and house (家), as he considered that a piece of chaff was like a house accommodating a grain of rice, according to the documents. Nearly 20 years ago, Professor Shouju Ikeda of Hokkaido University introduced on the net the URL of a website created by a local to explain this etymology, and I actually checked the uploaded story, but the link to the website has been broken for a long time. When I asked the Kouda Library about it the other day, they answered that the paper document on which the web information was based was written in the mid-1980s, and that the person who was engaged in the interview had passed away. As seen in this case, there is always the risk that the folklore in place names is forgotten or that it disappears soon because none of this folklore has been stored in the media available nationwide.

At Yuriage, Natori city.

I visited Yuriage (閖上) in Miyagi prefecture several years before the place suffered serious damage from a great earthquake and tsunami. The purpose was to explore how the character 閖, which is a kanji dialect unique to Miyagi, was used. A lunch I had there, which was full of seafood, was called Yuriage Gozen. People around this area including Sendai were so attached to this character that they used it in their children's names. Several documents in and after the Edo era hand down the tradition that a local lord—sometimes assumed to be Date Masamune—created this character when he was able to see the ocean through a gate.

From the Kanchi-in edition of Ruiju Myōgishō, the Hō part, Vol. 3. This character 谷 is a simplified form of 俗, and 力到反 indicates its On reading rou.

Though this explanation has spread as a peaceful story, this character appears in a Chinese dictionary entitled Longkan Shoujian, which was edited about 1,000 years ago. This dictionary only says that its On reading (pseudo-Chinese reading) as slang pronunciation was rou (澇). The character 澇 means a big wave. In this dictionary, the meaning of a character was often indicated by its On reading shown in the form of an explanatory note. This implies the possibility that the character 閖 was created by combining two characters meaning a gate (門) and water (水) to express water surging toward a gate. This character was introduced into Japan in early times and appeared in the Kanchi-in edition of Ruiju Myōgishō in the Kamakura era, which clearly positioned 閖as a slang character for 澇. Then, the character was copied to other dictionaries (note that 閖 with a different meaning has also often appeared in documents, but it was a coincidence of the character form that was separately created by combining two characters).

I feel that the meaning of this 閖 conveys a message from people afflicted by the Jōgan great earthquake that hit the northern part of Japan in 869, as well as from our ancestors who passed down its story from generation to generation, although it might simply be coincidental. After the great earthquake disaster in 2011, many people talked about the name of the Namiwake shrine in Sendai and the origin of the pronunciation ona in place names Onahama and Onagawa, which is related to the word onami or sequential big waves. In an old document related to a big explosion of Mount Unzen-Fugen (called Shimabara erupted, Higo affected) in the Edo era, there was a sentence in which this document recorded the miserable scenes so that future generations can prepare for another disaster. I heard, however, that no lesson was learnt from this record at the time of the pyroclastic flows in 1990.

In the case of Gake (垳) in Yashio city, Saitama prefecture, locals believe that this kanji dialect was derived from a cliff created when the soil was swept into the Gake River. Here, dedicated people are carrying out activities in passing down the memory of the landscape to the future and preserving this place name to which the locals are attached. They are facing movement of the city, however, to replace the name with a modern place name that lacks historical background.

At Gake, Yashio city

Yatsu (谷津), which is the popular name for a mud flat in Chiba prefecture, is a place name whose kanji notation expresses a dialect word in this region meaning a valley or lowland swamp. The character 津 in Tsudanuma (津田沼) was taken from this place name. This means that the pronunciation ya of 谷 in the place name in Hiroshima mentioned at the beginning of this article is not an ancient notation or pronunciation, but rather a way of pronunciation in the Kanto region. Yatsu in Chiba was Yatsu village in the Edo era, but part of Yatsu was renamed Kanadenomori, which is a product name created by a condominium developer, over the opposition of locals. In this way, information on terrestrial nature was lost again. People in many regions around the nation often mention with regret and self-reflection the extreme difficulty of restoring once changed place names.

We are living on the earth. The earth has provided us with abundant gifts from nature, and people have been living their lives with these gifts from the past. Nature also conceals violence. Such information is transmitted by the names of the land like a time capsule, and we have to consider the implication of casually changing those names. While many things change with the times, the wisdom of ancient people gives modern people ample knowledge and culture. In preparation for the unexpected future events that will certainly occur again, our ancestors left their messages in place names. Both scholars and people living in those places need to continue trying to read the messages correctly from both the pronunciation and the kanji.

Hiroyuki Sasahara
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

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The author was born in Tokyo in 1965. He studied Chinese language at the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Japanese language at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and earned his PhD in Literature at Waseda University. His research involves kanji characters, letters, and notations based on various materials ranging from ancient epigraph to modern Internet texts. He was involved in tasks for revising JIS kanji characters with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Kanji Designated for Personal Names with the Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice, and National List of Chinese Characters in Common Use with the Council for Cultural Affairs of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Following posts as a full-time lecturer at Bunka Women’s University, senior researcher at the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, and associate professor at Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University, he was appointed as a professor on the Faculty of Social Sciences at Waseda University in 2007. His main works include Kanji in Japan [Nihon no Kanji] (Iwanami Shinsho, January 2006); Story about Kun reading: Kanji Culture and Japanese Language [Kun-yomi no Hanashi: Kanji Bunka to Nihongo] (Kadokawa Sophia Bunko, April 2014); and History of Kanji [Kanji no Rekishi] (Chikuma Primer Sensho, September 2014). He was awarded the 35th Dr. Kyosuke Kindaicih memorial prize for Phase and Development of Japanese Characters [Kokuji no Isō to Tenkai] (Sanseido, March 2007).